The literate city

by ninameetscafe

On my way to yoga one morning, I selected five books for free off the stoop of a neighbor’s brownstone, halting my frenetic walk (I was late) to peruse the unsupervised pile. On my way back home an hour later, I picked up another four books from yet another generous house front. This another-man’s-treasure thing goes on all the time around here, so I’m no longer confused or suspicious (This must be a trick?!) by it. At the same time, I can’t forget how special it is. Around these brownstone neighborhoods, people leave out books left and right. There’s even a house with a standing red receptacle labeled “Lending Library.” I’ve checked it repeatedly; it’s definitely in use. This local circulation of books provides a glimpse into our neighbors’ interior, book-filled lives and still it’s only one of the signs. People here are reading so much that the fact spills out everywhere. It’s a bit of a dream.

It caught me by surprise. Well, I guess there’s that one (or every) Sex and the City episode where the city is presented as rather smugly intellectual (especially in the one comparing New York to Los Angeles*). But, even awareness of some proud “intellectualness” thing could not have prepared me for the warmth of what it looks and feels like in real life. In real life, I see books in the hands of other readers, everywhere.

We can start with the books cracked open on the subway: the glory of being able to read to and from work next to a number of other commuters doing the same; the awesomeness of re-reading Harry Potter and sitting next to another woman with the next installment in her lap and whose nephew, as one may discover, was born on Harry Potter’s birthday recently (July 31); or the fact that the majority of photos from this Instagram account were definitely taken in New York.

There’s the organized side of it, too. For example, I’m suddenly reading books for two book clubs, which is two more book clubs than I ever thought I’d be in again. Book clubs!!! Book clubs! I forgot how amazing book clubs are, and yet I seem to have plopped into multiple, independent social circles that embrace them (one is for modern classics, the other for Christian literature). The last time I was in a real book club was in middle school. In grown-up life, there’s wine and coffee, your friends and your friends’ friends, and a jumble of ideas and backgrounds. Most wonderfully, everyone is at this mini-institutional meeting 100 percent of their own volition. Even my church has a book sales table for which I couldn’t help but jump into staffing once I knew it existed, but only after waiting for a regular shift to open up since it’s possibly the only church area not in chronic need of new volunteers.

Without wrapping them into a cohesive story, I can think of some structural factors in this city that collectively might contribute to the reading culture. One might be that hiring movers is really expensive in New York, which means that when people move, their books end up sitting out for free. (My roommate and I have accumulated some beautiful mirrors and framed prints this way.) Another is that there are so many college-educated working professionals, which could translate to lots of people who have been reading for their own education, too, and never dropped the habit. Finally, there’s no wi-fi on the subway, and an alternative to Facebook is an actual book.


Whatever the causes, the conversation about books and authors here is unlike anything I’ve experienced before, and it’s a very palpable part of this city’s culture for me. Simply being outside with open eyes makes me vulnerable to new ideas for reading material. Simply meeting new people is grounds for hearing about a book they think I’d love. The normality of these things is both amazing and comforting to me.

Anyway, I tend to log the date I finish a book, and I think I’ve read more books in the past nine months living here than I have in my life, even in the context of feeling like I don’t actually have enough time to read. I credit the everpresent, societal nudge toward reading more that I see and feel at every corner around here. It’s definitely a kind of peer pressure (since, for better and for worse, that’s what culture is, no?) and boy do I support it.


* Speaking of New York versus Los Angeles, I got a crack out of this…